* This article was first published in The Guardian, Monday September 20, 2004. Read all articles by Gary Younge.
The tale of how I became a Nazi and my Nazi harasser became a Jew is as intriguing as it is instructive. Last November I wrote a column about a racist email sent to me by an employee of an insurance company and my frustrations over the manner in which my grievance was handled. The man in question (a white, South African supporter of the British National party who complained of “undesirables flooding into Britain”) was subsequently fired. His dismissal was not as a result of my column but because my original complaint had alerted the company to a previously unreported pattern of racist behaviour on his part.
Of the numerous responses from the public I received, most were supportive but many were more abusive than the original message. One stood out. Incensed that something as “trivial” as racist abuse could lead to a man losing his job, one reader compared me to the person who betrayed Anne Frank. And so, through contorted metaphor and contemptuous logic, the harasser became the victim and the harassed was transformed into the perpetrator.
Victimhood is a powerful, yet contradictory, force. Powerful because, once claimed, it can provide the moral basis for redress, retaliation and even revenge in order to right any given wrong – real or imagined. The defence of everything from the death penalty to affirmative action, Serbian nationalism to equality legislation, are all underpinned, to some degree, by the notion of victimhood. Contradictory because, in order to harness that power, one must first admit weakness. Victims, by their very nature, have less power than their persecutors: victimhood is a passive state – the result of bad things happening to people who are unable to prevent it.
In the past, the right has exploited this tension to render victimhood a dirty word – a label synonymous with whingers, whiners, failures and fantasists. Revealing no empathy with the powerless nor any grasp of historical context, they wilfully ignore the potential for victimhood to morph into resistance, preferring instead to lampoon it as a loser’s charter.
“The left had become little more than a meeting place for balkanised groups of discontents, all bent on extracting their quota of public shame and their slice of the entitlement pie,” wrote columnist Norah Vincent three years ago. “All of them blaming their personal failures on their race, their sex, their sexual orientation, their disability, their socioeconomic status and a million other things.”
Such arguments were always flawed. But increasingly they are beginning to look downright farcical. For if you are looking for someone making political hay out of victimhood nowadays, look no further than the right. The ones most ready, willing and able to turn the manipulation of pain into an art form have found their home among the world’s most powerful.
Read the Daily Mail and you would believe that Britain is under threat from the most impoverished and vulnerable people in the land. Asylum seekers, immigrants, “welfare cheats” and single mothers are bringing the nation to its knees. While the country is going to the dogs, the Christians are, apparently, heading for the lions. “We, as a people, and the government, must make strenuous efforts to promote and defend our culture, and especially the place of Christianity in it and the rights to self-expression by Christians,” wrote Simon Heffer earlier this year.
Across the Atlantic, the right’s new role as victims is even more prevalent and pronounced. Straight relationships are threatened by the prospect of gay marriage, white workers are threatened by affirmative action, American workers are threatened by third world labourers, America is threatened by everybody.
At times, this means the powerful appropriating the icons, tropes and rhetoric of the powerless in their entirety, to hilarious – if disturbing – effect. Last year Roy Moore, the former Republican chief justice of Alabama, led a failed bid to keep a monument of the Ten Commandments in his courthouse. Standing before a group of supporters, some of whom were waving Confederate flags, emblem of the slave-holding South, he said: “If the ‘rule of law’ means to do everything a judge tells you to do, we would still have slavery in this country.” Wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Islam is a lie, homosexuality is a sin, abortion is murder”, they then sang We Shall Overcome.
In these cases, victimhood serves merely as a pretext for a backlash to reassert, extend or expand the dominance of the powerful. If these people are victims of anything, it is of the threat to their entitlement and privilege.
In others, however, genuine suffering acts as a precursor to genuine vindictiveness. The threat of suicide bombings in Israel serves as the rationale for building the wall to protect Israelis from terrorist attack. In the current intifada, the Israelis have lost more citizens than during the six-day war – no one should belittle their pain. Palestinians, on the other hand, have lost about three times as many people due to Israeli military aggression. Who, one wonders, needs protecting from whom – or is some people’s pain more valuable than others’?
But nowhere is the abuse of victimhood more blatant than in the US presidential election, where September 11 remains the central plank of the Republicans’ strategy for re-election. The fact that their campaign begins with the terror attacks is not only understandable but also, arguably, right – this is the most significant thing to happen in the US since Bush assumed office.
The trouble is that the campaign’s message ends with that day also. September 11 has served not as a starting point from which to better understand the world but as an excuse not to understand it at all. It is a reference point that brooks no argument and needs no logic. No weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? “The next time, the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud?” No United Nations authority? “We will never again wait for permission to defend our country.” No link between Saddam and al-Qaida? “They only have to be right once. We have to be right every time.”
This is the real link between Iraq and 9/11 – the rhetorical dissembling that renders victimhood not a point from which they might identify with and connect to the rest of humanity but a means to turn their back on humanity. They portray America’s pain as a result of 9/11 not only as unique in its expression but also superior in its intensity.
When 3,000 people died on September 11, Le Monde declared: “We are all Americans now.” Around 12,000 civilians have died in Iraq since the beginning of the war, yet one waits in vain for anyone to declare that we have all become Iraqis, or Afghans, let alone Palestinians. This is not a competition. Sadly, there are enough victims to go around. Sadder still, if the US continues on its present path, there will be many more. Demanding a monopoly on the right to feel and to inflict pain simply inverts victimhood’s regular contradiction – the Bush administration displays material strength and moral weakness.